Bitch Magazine's list of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader clearly struck a chord with feminist moms, given how many of my friends emailed, Facebooked, and Twittered it. At quick glance, the books I know are good ones, I'm sure the rest are worth a look, and of course there are omissions, because that's the nature of lists (Mara is particularly incensed by the absence of Dairy Queen, our number-one best-ever all-time favorite). But, as evidenced by the comments on Bitch's website, you can't make such a list without getting into trouble. In this case, besides the usual recommendations and complaints, the major controversy, which has spread through the YA writing and reading community, has focused on three books related to rape that the Bitch staff eventually removed from the list -- a decision I find disappointing and disturbing, given my belief that the way to handle challenging reading material is to talk about it, not ban it.
This is also why I'm a little skeptical of the list's very premise. People are always asking me for book recommendations, for themselves and their children, so I appreciate the impetus. But is the "Feminist Reader" a girl incensed by the sexism she sees around her, looking for books to support her worldview? I doubt it. Those girls usually find their own books -- and magazines, websites, and music. Is she an anxious mom, trying to fend off rainbow fairies, cat warriors, and gossip girls? Probably, and the list will be a fine tool for her, but whether her daughters choose to follow her suggestions will ultimately depend more on the quality of their relationship than the quality of the books. Ultimately, the list seems aimed at the self-selected feminist book-lovers who read Bitch, which is nice for them, and for the authors of the books, but won't have much of an effect on the young readers targeted by YA.
As for me, I'm more interested in what girls do read than what they should read, which leads me to president's daughters. President's daughters? Yes, president's daughters. My house is littered with president's daughter books, and I've been wondering what's up with that. Then, as I scanned the Bitch comments, I saw one that said, "The President's Daughter books aren't on this list?!" I knew I was onto something, so I started to read.
It turns out that president's daughter books are the kind of books that don't tend to make earnest lists. For one thing, they're series: Ellen Emerson White's The President's Daughter and its sequels (to which I'm guessing the commenter was referring), Mitali Perkins' First Daughter books, the Liberty Porter, First Daughter series, Cassidy Calloway's Confessions of a First Daughter and Secrets of a First Daughter. For another thing, although they have slightly different characterizations -- Meghan White and Morgan Abbott have presidential moms; Sameera Righton is adopted from Pakistan and her presidential dad is a Republican; unlike her teenage peers, middle-grade novel heroine Liberty Porter is nine and African-American -- they have distinctly formulaic tendencies: there's always a kindly White House chef, a scene in the White House bowling alley and another in the movie theater, Secret Service skirmishes, and a boy (even Liberty Porter has a boy friend, though he's nowhere near a boyfriend).
Finally, rather than springing from a font of pure art, these books have at least some degree of opportunistic inspiration. Clumsy, resentful of her role, and possessed of a talented best friend, Calloway's Morgan Abbot distinctly resembles Mia of The Princess Diaries. According to an interview, Perkins wrote her First Daughter books in response to an editor's request that happened to show up just about when Barack Obama became known as a potential presidential candidate. The first Liberty Porter book appeared in 2009, and Liberty herself splits the difference between Sasha and Malia. That there appear to be no president's son books (correct me if I'm wrong) could be a reflection of the Obama girls, but could also signal the general trend of marketing to girls.
So, are these books worth reading? They are -- and they provide an interesting window into the fictional world created by the books girls really do read. For one thing, life online. Laura Miller recently argued that contemporary fiction has ignored the internet, but she's clearly not talking about kids' books. Everyone reads Sameera Righton's Sparrowblog. Morgan Abbot texts and emails with the best of them -- and her email mishap generates a crucial plot point. Even Liberty Porter receives her first cell phone on Inauguration Day, so she can text her parents.
As with Liberty's cell phone, to be the president's daughter is in some ways the ultimate wish fulfillment: you're driven to school in a fancy car, there's that bowling alley and movie theater and delicious food whenever you want it, you get to meet princes and movie stars (or the "Bonus Brothers," if you're Liberty). As Eva pointed out, three of the four heroines are only children, which only ups the fantasy of having it all. Yet the truth of the matter is, privilege has its perils: jealous schoolmates, omnipresent Secret Service agents, busy parents, high expectations. Maybe our ordinary lives aren't so bad...
Politically, president's daughter books offer the generic liberalism that produces fictional female and African American presidents, a rainbow of White House staffers, and a Washington D.C. where pretty much everyone, except for evil political opponents, wants to do the right thing (wouldn't that be nice?). More interestingly, though, these president's daughters get things done. Liberty turns the White House into a veritable People's House. Morgan helps her mother broker peace in Africa, relocates the American Business Leadership Council dinner from the East Room to a homeless shelter, and singlehandedly assures the passage of a microcredit program to help the poor. Sameera overcomes ethnic and racial prejudice, along with clueless marketing strategies, and transforms the inner-city public school she insists on attending. Sure, they get the boy, but they do a lot more than that. There can be positive formulas in formula fiction.
But the most interesting thing about my foray into president's daughter books had to do with my daughters, not president's daughters. When Eva and Mara heard my plan for this column, they enthusiastically joined the effort. Eva reread both Liberty Porter books and the second Mitali Perkins book, supervised my reading, and wrote her own blog post on the topic (even garnering a comment from Liberty Porter author Julia DeVillers!). She's been hanging over my shoulder today, as I write and rewrite, and she just assured me that what I've got so far is really good. Mara provided her own book praise and critique. The three of us discussed politics, literary motifs and quality, and the Obama girls, and even made a previously unscheduled trip to the library.
So while I think it's important to share good books with your kids, it can be just as important to share their books -- they might be better than you think, and the conversations you have might be even better than the books.